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   Chapter 25 I TAKE FRENCH LEAVE ASHORE.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 15758

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


In a sweating hurry I helped Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow to furl sail, coil away ropes, and tidy up generally. After these tedious weeks at sea I was wild for a run ashore, and, with the green woods inviting me, grudged even an hour's delay.

We had run down foresail and come to our anchor under jib and half-lowered mainsail. I sprang forward to take in the jib and carry it, with the foresail, to the locker abaft the ladies' cabin, when Captain Branscome sang out to me to be in no such hurry, but to fold and stow both sails neatly without detaching them-the one along the bowsprit, the other at the foot of the fore-stay, when they could be re-hoisted at a moment's notice.

These precautions were the more mysterious to me because a moment later he sent me to the locker to fetch up a tarpaulin cover for the mainsail, which he snugged down carefully, to protect it (as he explained) from the night dews-so carefully that he twice interrupted Mr. Goodfellow to correct a piece of slovenly tying. The sail being packed at length to his satisfaction, we laced the cover about it carefully as though it had been a lady's bodice.

Our next business was to get out the boats. The Espriella possessed three-a gig, shaped somewhat like a whaleboat; a useful, twelve-foot dinghy; and a small cockboat, or "punt" (to use our West Country name), capable, at a pinch, of accommodating two persons. This last we carried on deck; but the larger pair at the foot of the rigging on either side, whence we unlashed and lowered them by their falls. The punt we moored by a short painter under the bowsprit, so that she lay just clear of our stem.

This small job had fallen to me by the Captain's orders, and I clambered back, to find him and Mr. Rogers standing by the accommodation ladder on the port side, and in the act of stepping down into the dinghy. Indeed, Mr. Rogers had his foot on the ladder, and seemed to wait only while the Captain gave some instructions to Mr. Goodfellow, who was listening respectfully.

"Are we all to go ashore in the dinghy?" I asked.

The Captain turned on me severely, and I observed that he and Mr. Rogers had armed themselves with a musket apiece, each slung on a bandolier, and that Mr. Rogers wore an axe at his belt.

"Certainly not," said the Captain. "Mr. Rogers and I are going on shore to prospect, and I was at this moment instructing Mr. Goodfellow that nobody is to leave the ship without leave from me."

"But-" I began, and checked myself, less for fear of his anger than because I was actually on the verge of tears. I looked around for the ladies, but they had retired to their cabin. Oh, this was hard-a monstrous tyranny! And so I told Mr. Goodfellow hotly as the dinghy pushed off and, Mr. Rogers paddling her, drew away up the creek and rounded the bend under the almost overhanging trees.

"When are they coming back?" I demanded.

"Captain didn't say."

"You seem to take it easily," I flamed up; "but I call it a burning shame! Captain Branscome seems to think that this Island belongs to him; and you know well enough, if it hadn't been for me, he'd never have set eyes on it. What are you going to do?"

"Smoke a pipe," said Mr. Goodfellow, "and watch the beauties o' Nature."

"Well, I'm not," I threatened. "Captain Branscome may be a very good seaman but he's too much of an usher out of school. This isn't Stimcoe's."

"Not a bit like it," assented Mr. Goodfellow, feeling in his pockets.

"And if he thinks he can go on playing the usher over me, he'll find out his mistake. Why, look you, whose is the treasure, properly speaking? Who found it?"

"Nobody, yet."

Mr. Goodfellow drew forth a pipe and rubbed the bowl thoughtfully against his nose.

"Well, then, who found the chart? Who put you all on the scent? Who was it first heard the secret from Captain Coffin? And this man doesn't even consult me-doesn't think me worth a civil word! I'll be shot if I stand it!" I wound up, pacing the deck in my rage.

Just then Plinny's voice called up to us from the cabin, announcing that dinner was ready.

"But," said she, "one of you must eat his portion on deck while he keeps watch; that was Captain Branscome's order."

"More orders!" I grumbled; and then, with a sudden thought, I nodded to Mr. Goodfellow, who was replacing his pipe in his pocket. "You go. Hand me up a plate and a fistful of ship biscuit, and leave me to deal with 'em. I'm not for stifling down there under hatches, whatever your taste may be."

"'Tis a fact," he admitted, "that a meal does me more good when I square my elbows to it."

"Down you go, then," said I; "and when you're wanted I'll call you."

He descended cheerfully, reappeared to pass up a plate, and descended again. I gobbled down enough to stay my appetite, crammed my pocket full of ship biscuit, and, after listening for a moment at the hatchway, tiptoed forward and climbed out upon the bowsprit. Then, having unloosed the cockboat's painter, I lowered and let myself drop into her, and, slipping a paddle into the stern-notch, sculled gently for shore.

The Espriella, of course, lay head-to-tide, and the tide by this time was making strongly-so strongly that I had no time to get steerage way on the little boat before it swept her close under the open porthole through which I heard Miss Belcher inviting Mr. Goodfellow to pass his plate for another dumpling. Miss Belcher's voice-as I may or may not have informed the reader-was a baritone of singularly resonant timbre. It sounded through the porthole as through a speaking trumpet, and I ducked and held my breath as the boat's gunwale rubbed twice against the schooner's side before drifting clear.

Once clear, however, I worked my paddle with a will, though noiselessly; and, the tide helping me, soon reached and rounded the first bend. Here, out of sight of the ship, I had leisure to draw breath and look about me.

Ahead of me lay a still reach, close upon half a mile in length, and narrowing steadily to the next bend, when the two shores overlapped and mingled their reflections on the water. On my right the red cliffs, their summits matted with creepers, descended sheer into water many fathoms deep, yet so clear that I could spy the fish playing about their bases where they met the firm white sand. On my left the channel shoaled gradually to a beach of this same white sand, which followed the curve of the shore, here and again flashing out into broad sunshine from the blue shadow cast by the overhanging forest.

Between these banks the breeze could scarcely be felt, yet, though the sun scorched me, the heat was not oppressive. The woods, dense and tangled though they were, threw up no exhalations of mud or rotting leaves, but a clean, aromatic odour. It seemed to give them a substance without which they had been but a mirage, a scene painted on a cloth, so motionless and apparently lifeless they stood, with the long vines hanging from their boughs, and the hot, rarefied air quivering above them.

At first their silence daunted me; by-and-by I felt (I could hardly be said to hear) that this silence was intense, and held a sound of its own, a murmur as of millions of flies and minute winged things- or perhaps it came from the vegetation itself, and the sap pushing leaf against leaf and ceaselessly striving for room.

With scarcely more noise than the forest made in growing, I let the cockboat float up on the tide, correcting her course from time to time with a touch of the paddle astern; and so coming to the second bend, began to search the shore for a convenient landing. The Captain and Mr. Rogers, no doubt, had rowed up to the very head of the creek, and would by this time be prospecting for the clump of trees which were the key to unlock No. 3 cache. To escape-or, at any rate, delay-detection, I must land low

er down, and preferably at some point where I could pull up the boat and hide it.

With this in my mind, scanning the woods on the north bank for an opening, I drifted around the bend, and with a shock of surprise found myself in full view of the end of the creek. Worse than this, I was bearing straight for the Espriella's dinghy, which lay just above water on the foreshore, with her painter carried out to a tree above the bank. Worst of all, some one at that instant stepped back from the bank and under the shadow of the tree, as if to await me there. . . . Mr. Rogers, or the Captain? . . . Mr. Rogers certainly; for I remembered that the Captain wore white duck trousers, and, by my glimpse of him, this man's clothes were dark. His height and walk, too! Yes; no doubt of it, he was Mr. Rogers.

I stood-a culprit caught red-handed-and let the boat drift me down upon retributive justice. A while ago I had been mentally composing a number of effective retorts upon Captain Branscome for his tyrannical behaviour. Now, of a sudden, all this eloquence deserted me: I felt it leaking away and knew myself for a law-breaker. One lingering hope remained-that the Captain had pushed ahead into the woods, and that, as yet, Mr. Jack Rogers (whose good nature I might almost count upon) had alone detected me and would pack me home to the ship with nothing worse than a flea in my ear.

His silence encouraged this hope. Half a minute passed and still he forbore to lift his voice and summon me. He stood, deep in the shadow, his face screened by the boughs, and made no motion to advance to the bank.

Then suddenly-at, maybe, two hundred yards' distance-I saw him take another pace backwards and slip away among the trees.

"Good man!" thought I, and blessed him (after my first start of astonishment). "He has pretended not to see me."

At any rate he had given me a pretty good hint to make myself scarce unless I wished to incur Captain Branscome's wrath. I slipped my paddle forward into a rowlock, picked up the other, and, dropping upon the thwart, jerked the cockboat right-about-face to head her back for the schooner.

But after a stroke or two I easied and let her drift back stern-foremost while I sat considering. Mr. Rogers had behaved like a trump; yet it seemed mean to deceive the old man; and, moreover, it amounted to striking my colours. I had broken orders deliberately and because I denied his right to give such orders. I might be a youngster; but, to say the least of it, I had as much interest in the success of this expedition as any member of the company. The shortest way to dissuade Captain Branscome from treating me as a child was to assert myself from the beginning. I had started with full intent to assert myself, and-yes, I was much obliged to Mr. Rogers, but this question between me and Branscome had best be settled, though it meant open mutiny. I felt pretty sure that Miss Belcher would support the tyrant; almost equally sure that Plinny would acquiesce, though her sympathy went with me; and strangely enough, and unjustly, I felt the angrier with Plinny. But even against Miss Belcher I had a card to play. "Captain Branscome may be an excellent leader," I would say; "but I beg you to remember that you gave me no vote in electing him. I will obey any leader I have my share in choosing, but until then I stand out." And I had an inkling that, though the public voice would be against me, I should establish my claim to be taken into any future counsels.

"In for a lamb, in for a sheep," thought I, and began to back the cockboat towards the corner where the dinghy lay. As I did so it occurred to me to wonder why the Captain and Mr. Rogers had been so dilatory. They must have started a full hour ahead of me; they had left the schooner at a brisk stroke, whereas I had merely floated up with the tide. Yet either I had all but surprised them in the act of stepping ashore, or, if they had landed at once, why had Mr. Rogers loitered on the bank until I was close on overtaking him?

They had landed at the extreme head of the creek. Therefore (I argued) their intent was to follow up the stream here indicated on the chart and search for the clump of trees which guarded the secret of No. 3 cache.

Sure enough, having beached my boat alongside the dinghy and climbed the green knoll above the foreshore, I spied their footprints on the sandy edge of the stream which here fetched a loop before joining the tidal waters of the creek. They led me along a flat meadow of exquisitely green turf, fringed with palmetto-trees, to the entrance of a narrow gorge through which the stream came tumbling in a series of cascades, spraying the ferns that overhung it. The forest with its undergrowth pressed so closely upon either bank that after scrambling up beside the first waterfall I was forced to take off shoes and stockings and work my way up the irregular bed, now wading knee-deep, now clambering or leaping from boulder to boulder; and, even so, to press from time to time through the meeting boughs, shielding my face from scratches. So, for at least a mile, I climbed as through a narrow green tunnel, and at the end of it found myself wet to the skin. Five waterfalls I had passed, and, beside the fourth, where the bank was muddy, had noted a long, smooth mark, and recent, such as a man's foot might make in slipping; so that I felt pretty confident of being on my companions' track, though I wondered how the Captain, with his lame leg, could sustain such a climb.

But above the fifth waterfall the stream divided into two branches, and at the fork of them I stood for a while in doubt which to choose. So far as volume of water went, there was, indeed, little or nothing to choose. If direction counted, the main stream would be that which came rushing down the gorge straight ahead of me-a gorge which, however, as my eye followed the V of its tree-tops up to the sky-line, promised to grow steeper and worse tangled. On the other hand, the tributary (as I shall call it), which poured down from a lateral valley on my left, ran with an easier flow, as though drawing its waters from less savage slopes. I could not see these slopes-a bend of the hills hid them; but I reasoned that if a clump of trees, separate and distinguishable, stood anywhere near the banks of either stream, it might possibly be found by this one. The other showed nothing but a close mass of vegetation.

Accordingly I turned my steps up the channel to the left, and was rewarded, after another twenty minutes' scramble, by emerging upon a break in the forest. On one side of the stream rose a reddish-coloured cliff, almost smooth of face and about seventy or eighty feet high, across the edge of which the last trees on the summit clutched with their naked roots, as though protesting against being thrust over the precipice by the crowd behind them. The other bank swelled up, from a little above the water's edge, to a fair green lawn, rounded, grassy, and smooth as a glade in an English park. At its widest I dare say that, from the stream's edge back to the steep slope where the forest started again and climbed to a tall ridge that shut in the glen on the south side, it measured something over two hundred yards.

"Here," thought I, glancing up the glade towards the westering sun, "is the very spot for our clump of, trees;" and so it was-only no clump of trees happened to be in sight. The glade, however, stretched away and around a bend of the stream, and I was moving to the bank to explore it to its end when my eyes were arrested by something white not ten paces away. It was a piece of paper caught against one of the large boulders between which, as through a broken dam, the water poured into the ravine. I waded towards it and stooped, steadying myself against the current.

It was a paper boat.

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